Prison reform will fail unless safety and staff retention addressed, says Justice Committee

An action plan is “urgently needed to reverse…[the]…rapid deterioration” in prison safety, concludes a new report by the House of Commons Justice Committee. Published just prior to the government’s Queen’s Speech announcement of a major overhaul of prison services, the report issues a serious warning that unless the decline in prison safety is reversed, new government reforms will be “severely undermined.”

The Justice Committee examined the government’s response to the ongoing and rapid deterioration in prison safety in England and Wales, from 2012 onward, reviewing recent statistics, as well as taking evidence from the Prisons Minister and the Chief Executive of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS). The findings of the Committee show the failure of government reforms and a system reeling in crisis.

In July 2015, Justice Secretary Michael Gove stated that he acknowledged the gravity of the situation:

“We have significant problems in our prisons at the moment. You cannot look at the number of suicides and self-inflicted injuries or at the level of violence overall in the prison estate and feel anything other than concern about the conditions in which prison officers have to work and the conditions in which offenders are kept.”

Unfortunately, it appears the concern expressed by Gove did not lead to a positive change in the conditions prison officers have to work, nor the conditions in which offenders are kept, in fact, they have very much worsened. The Justice Committee noted that despite some legislative changes, operational actions and other reforms, such as to governor autonomy and family support, “overall levels of safety in prisons have not stabilised as the Ministry hoped, let alone improved and continue to decline significantly.”

The former HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, wrote to the Justice Committee in January 2016, stating that (notwithstanding difficulties in comparing HMI Prisons’ evidence from one year to the next), recent inspections had shown that there had been “little change in resettlement and “erratic change” in safety outcomes.” In particular, the Committee report Hardwick as stating:

“NOMS data demonstrates that prisons have become a lot more dangerous, with higher levels of homicides, self-inflicted deaths, self-harm incidents and…. assaults and serious assaults (on staff and other prisoners) than they have been since these records began.”

Crucially, in Hardwick’s letter, he reflects that one of the reasons for the decline in safety in prisons is “the availability of psychoactive substances”, but he goes further:

“…as you know I have also expressed concern about staff shortages, overcrowding and wider policy changes having an impact.”

Staffing shortages was one of the key areas highlighted by the Justice Committee. They report that despite efforts to recruit more staff in 2015, the 2,250 extra prison officers had resulted in a net gain of only 440 officers. Further, NOMS’ workforce statistics indicate that “recruitment has not kept pace with people leaving the service.” As the Prison Officers Association (POA) has made clear, there are now 7,000 fewer officers than in 2010, when the prison population was approximately 2,500 lower.

The POA has argued that funding cuts and staffing reductions are “intrinsically linked” to the increase in violence, deaths and suicides. The Justice Committee also report that 39 per cent of staff who left the prison service in 2015 resigned, “indicating ongoing problems with retention.” The Committee argue that the woefully low increase in staff renders much of the recruitment exercise valueless and that “the factors underlying this issue are, we suspect, not fully understood by NOMS and are clear not being adequately addressed.”

To highlight the scale of the resource and staff constraints as well as overcrowding levels, it is worth taking a look at the very comprehensive ‘Bromley Briefings’ Factfile published regularly by the Prison Reform Trust (PRT), which reports that:

  • Between 2010-11 and 2014-15, NOMS delivered cumulative savings of almost £900m, a reduction of nearly a quarter since 2010-11.
  • Over the last four years (up to April 2015) public sector prisons have delivered £334m savings.
  • The number of staff employed in the public prison estate has fallen by 30% in the last five years (up to June 2015), while at the end of September 2015, 70 of the 117 prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded.

There are now far fewer staff looking after many more prisoners, while staff health and wellbeing is at an all-time low. Sickness absence, often an indicator of physical and mental health problems that are not being addressed, has risen among prison staff. The PRT report that in 2014-15 the average number of working days lost to sickness absence was 11.1 days, a rise from 9.8 days in 2011-12.

An independent survey of work-related stress and wellbeing among the membership of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) in 2014 conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Bedfordshire arrived at a damning indictment of government policy, revealing a totally demoralised workforce. Among the key findings of the survey were that none of the benchmarks set by the UK Health and Safety Executive for the management of work related stress had been met, and:

  • Levels of psychological wellbeing and job satisfaction were considerably poorer than those found in other “highly stressed” occupational groups.
  • 84% of respondents indicated that they felt under pressure to come into work when they felt unwell.
  • Disclosing work related stress and “failure to cope” was highly stigmatised in the sector and little support seemed to be available.
  • Seven out of every 10 respondents to the survey regretted their choice of job.
  • 60% were considering leaving the Prison Sector in the near future.
  • POA members received considerably more support from colleagues than they do managers.
  • 75% of the sample surveyed indicated that working after 60 years of age would impair their job performance “very much”.
  • Less than 7% rated the quality of on the job training as very good or excellent.
  • 57% considered this to be poor or very poor.

To illustrate the scale of staff cuts in the prison service, the graph below from the Ministry of Justice’s ‘Workforce Bulletin’ shows the decline in total Prison Service / NOMS staff numbers from 2009 onward. As a note, the dramatic rise in staff numbers at the end of the graph was due to probation staff transferring from the now abolished Probation Trusts (which though public sector bodies, recorded staff numbers separately) into the civil service, following the controversial and disastrous restructuring of probation services.

The Ministry of Justice’s latest Safety in Custody statistics illustrate quite starkly what the PPO referred to as violence at an “all time high”. In the 12 months up to December 2015 there were:

  • 20,518 assault incidents, up 27% from 16,219 incidents in the same period of 2014
  • 2,813 serious assaults, up 31% from 2,150 in the previous year;-
  • 15,511 prisoner on prisoner assaults, up 24% from 12,552 incidents in the previous 12 months;
  • 2,197 serious prisoner on prisoner assaults, up 31% from 1,682 in the same period of 2014;
  • 4,963 assaults on staff, up 36% from 3,640 incidents in the same period of 2014;
  • 625 serious assaults on staff, up 31% from 477 in the same period of 2014

To reinforce the fact that the rise in assaults is not solely linked to a rising prison population, the MoJ statistics also record a rise in assault incidents per 1,000 prisoners:

  • 240 assault incidents per 1,000 prisoners, up from 190 on the same period in 2014
  • 181 prisoner on prisoner assault incidents per 1,000 prisoners, up from 147 in the same period of the previous year;
  • 58 assault on staff incidents per 1,000 prisoners, up from 43 on the same period in 2014;

Prisons are very dangerous places to work, and have become more so in recent years. The danger was at such a level in HMP Wormwood Scrubs recently that POA members took the reluctant decision to withdraw to a safe place under Health and Safety legislation. As the Justice Committee has made clear, it is imperative that recent trends of escalating violence, self-harm and self-inflicted deaths are reversed and that the government “get a grip” on the “serious and deep-rooted issue of staff retention”. Without such urgent action that also addresses chronic resource constraints, the much-vaunted overhaul of prisons will very likely fail, while prisons will become less safe, more violent and much less likely to be places in which rehabilitation is in any way possible.

The Speak up for Justice Campaign calls for an integrated, publicly owned, accessible and accountable justice system.

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